Josef von Sternberg’s Der Blaue Engel (aka The Blue Angel) is the film that launched the career of actress Marlene Dietrich and is one of those rare films that has the distinction of being both a tragedy and comedy at the same time. Even though the film made Dietrich a household name it’s German actor Emil Janning’s extraordinary and distinguished performance that is the high point of the film. Janning plays Immanuel Rath, a middle-aged, unmarried professor working at a local German school. His eccentric personality makes him the target of jokes at his school and is subjected to taunts by his students. During one of his classes, Rath finds out that the boys are passing on a picture of Lola-Lola, a cabaret dancer at “The Blue Angel”. He intends to follow the students to this place and catch them red-handed.
But after witnessing Lola and her act, Rath himself becomes enamored of her and finds himself seduced by her charms. He ends up spending the night at her residence. Rath, wishing no more to spend the rest of his life alone, decides to marry her. Rath quits from his school and follows Lola hoping to enjoy a happy life with her. Now that he is without a job and unable to find one, he becomes increasingly dependent on her. Finally, he has to contend himself with working at “The Blue Angel”, becoming a promoter of his wife by selling her photographs to the public. Not only that, he is forced to become a performer himself at this very club – as a clown. The film came out at a time when cinema was making the transition from silent film to sound and I don’t think it would’ve worked as well if it were made as a silent film.
Jannings has already distinguished himself prior to this film, having previously acted in silent films such as The Last Laugh and Faust. But it’s his turn as Rath that I found to be his greatest performance. His harrowing transformation from a educated and well-respected professor to a clown, both literally and figuratively, is painfully heartbreaking. It’s Janning that gives the film it’s weight and his scenes, especially in the first half, are captivating to watch. We feel sorry for this character who is stripped of his dignity and moral standing and reduced to a pitiful, insecure and self-loathing wreck. And all this naturally makes us feel contempt for Lola, whose love for Rath is short-lived and superficial. It goes without saying that the film is a superior example of German Expressionism at it’s best.